The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon


by Barbara Knott

Leonard Cohen and Those Who Know Secret Things

In my study, on the pale gold wall opposite me, behind the table where I write, there is a large empty space that I like to look at when I'm thinking. Above that, out of my immediate view, is a line of photographs of people whose work I sometimes like to think about, who are in the foreground when I am reading them and in the background when I am writing. They could be called "influences." I consider them familiar spirits who gather around the table with me when I invite them. My invitation is to lean back and raise my eyes to their faces.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke and psychologist C. G. Jung are shown holding books, with Rilke gazing somberly toward the camera, and with Jung looking into the manuscript he is holding while he smokes his pipe. Between them is Leonard Cohen, writer and musician, who has white shirt cuffs like Rilke's and whitish hair like Jung's but who otherwise doesn't resemble either Jung, who is preoccupied with his manuscript, or Rilke, whose gaze belies his inwardness. Cohen leans into the camera, elbows fixed, fingers locked together, thumbs pressing against lips, a twinkle in eyes that are unmistakably searching mine. On the other side of Jung, near the window, is D. H. Lawrence, bathed more fully in the light coming in through gold curtains. His photograph is larger, poster size, given to me by my son one birthday when he happened to see it and to think how long I had read Lawrence and studied his work and how I might like to have it. He was right. But it took me a long time to find a wall for it. Now I am pleased to see these figures with whom I have conversed over several decades, all together.

What do these writers have in common, that they are guests at my literary table? The obvious and simple first answer is that they are all male. I admire and feel at home in the presence of many female writers, Doris Lessing and Mary Oliver among them, but the mystery of otherness attracts me to these male figures. The most important answer to the question of what they have in common, for me, is that they all write about love. And to be more specific, they write about erotic love, about the soul in tandem with the body, about searching for the sacred through the senses.

Leonard Cohen is the only one of my guests who is actually still alive. In October 2009, he played a concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. He made a point of showing his nimbleness at age 75 by skipping offstage each time he took a break. Between songs, he jested with the audience, but when he sang, he was Leonard the Lover: lover of God, lover of art, lover of women, lover of woman's soul and voice, her intelligence and sadness and joy and above all, her body. He has a chorus of three women to vocalize behind and around and in and through what he delivers in a voice that could be coming from a glass of good scotch or a vat of liquid chocolate or a black tulip or a Tibetan bell.

One of his themes is "there ain't no cure for love." And if that is so, that we must suffer love, how can we do it gladly? I ask across the table.

Jung removes his pipe and refers to the inner woman and man, the anima and animus that make of our twosome love a foursome, all of whom have to be reckoned with in what we call "relationship," not to mention his and her internalized parents and siblings, teachers, preachers, and authorities of all kinds. Rilke recommends that lovers protect each other's solitude, that they come forth from their individuality to mate and then return to solitude. Lawrence nods across the table to Rilke and then offers images: like two birds meeting and mating in midair, like stars meeting in a vast heaven, like the elephant who is slow to mate, like people on fire with multifarious flames of desire, like the ebb and flow of tides. Cohen approaches love as a sacrament, on his knees, hands raised in supplication, and the cry "Hallelujah" seems never far from his lips.

Each of these artists works in the medium of words from a virile and fecund imagination, with awareness and wit, to see through the ordinary to what is extraordinary. Each has a religious sensibility that tends to praise all creation. Each has eyes that shine with a teasing gaze, daring a woman to step forth from her hiding places and meet him. She is fine, he says. She is adorable, wonderful, and even worshipable. Jung probably would draw back at the thought of worshiping a woman, but I expect he felt it from time to time. Imagine all of them at once looking across the table. That feels good. Their interest is what I long for, and their implicit lover's whisper, "I see you." To be seen is one of the most valuable gifts one person can give another.And Jung, along with the others, was known for having that gift and using it with both men and women. What wants to be seen, of course, is what is hidden from others and too often from oneself.

Men and women often fail to see each other. They come at each other with different expectations, and they experience frustration when those are not met. The battle between the sexes is filled with sterile words and banal stereotyping. These four men, in my experience, are exceptional. They have great respect for women and in their work, they honor them.

Lawrence absorbed his knowledge of female psychology by osmosis from an intelligent and ambitious mother. Later, he explored another woman, Frieda von Richtofen, in more depth than most people in relationships can manage. Sex was for him a numinous experience, when it was good, and because he actively sought that particular goodness and refused to settle for a lesser life, he got what he wanted more often than not. Jung had a long and, by all accounts, loving marriage, complemented by the presence of a mistress who regularly took tea with the family. Rilke married and soon discovered that he could not live in coupledom and, though he remained affectionately connected to his wife and daughter, he left home to live wherever the writing of poetry led him. Cohen has been both married and not married, but I rarely think of his attachments except as occasions for songs.

And when he sings "I'm Your Man," you know he does not belong to any twosome that excludes you.

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man

That's the slow and sly beginning that gradually builds momentum:

If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I'll examine every inch of you

The promises are outrageous, funny, devotional, and appealing. Momentum keeps building. Then, near the end, he takes the lover's lament down into the deeps of desire:

Ah, the moon's too bright
The chain's too tight
The beast won't go to sleep
I've been running through these promises to you
That I made and I could not keep
Ah, but a man never got a woman back
Not by begging on his knees
Or I'd crawl to you baby
And I'd fall at your feet
And I'd howl at your beauty
Like a dog in heat
And I'd claw at your heart
And I'd tear at your sheet
I'd say please, please
I'm your man

Someone said to me, on listening to the song all the way through, "All those could be my words to you, except that part about striking me down in anger. I wouldn't say that."

L. Cohen goes all the way--as we used to say in high school, with only a foggy notion of what that could mean--giving us details from half a century of ripening love.

My favorite line from the chorus of women who sing backup with him on "Tower of Song" is do dum dum dum de do dum dum, a phrase that (he has suggested) more or less sums up his philosophy. Hidden in the phrase are all sorts of secret things. And I agree with Rilke that the silent, sometimes hardly moving times/when something is coming near,/I want to be with those who know secret things/or else alone.

That's what I like about the foursome on my wall, across the table from me, looking at me with high expectations, humor, challenge, and a willingness to meet. They are full of secret things, and they all could be humming do dum dum dum de do dum dum.

Copyright, 2010. Barbara Knott . All Rights Reserved
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